While Londoners can now track their city’s buses, New York City isn’t too far behind. According to MTA documents released this week, if all goes according to plan, the MTA’s BusTime system, in use in Brooklyn and nearly ready on Staten Island, will be available city-wide by April of 2013. It could revolutionize the way New Yorkers use the bus system.
For the past few years, as surface travel has grown slower and bus service less frequent, the MTA has noted a marked decrease in bus ridership. According to numbers released this week by Transit, average weekday bus ridership in August was below 2.3 million for the first time in years. Although some of that decline was due to the total shutdown of the transit system in advance of Hurricane Irene, the bus system has not enjoyed an increase in ridership in years.
We could spend hours debating the reasons for the declining bus ridership. The vehicles are slow and uncomfortable. They don’t run on or close to the MTA’s posted schedules. Facing congestion and long boarding lines, crosstown trips in Manhattan, in particular, are often slower than walking. It’s no coincidence that as Select Bus Service improvements are rolled out across the city, bus ridership along those lines are among the highest around.
One of the key drivers behind the lack of faith in the city’s bus service concerns reliability. Although the authority posts schedules, buses come when they feel like it, often in bunches and rarely on time. Bus tracking projects, similar to the ones in place along 34th St. in Manhttan and the B63 route in Brooklyn, take the surprise out of bus travel and better allow riders to program their trips. If all goes according to plan, every bus will be equipped with such a tracking system by April of 2013, and riding the bus in New York City should become convenient again.
According to the presentation (found in the Capital Program Oversight Committee materials), the MTA is moving forward aggressively with plans to outfit the entire bus fleet with the tracking software. It will be activated in all 830 Staten Island buses by December of this year, and the project is coming in within the allocated budget. The city-wide rollout will begin next year.
Already, the project in Brooklyn, according to the MTA, is drawing high praise. The authority reports 1500 daily requests each day, and 94 percent of current users want to see it available through the city. I wonder what the other six percent want, but I digress. A “small percentage” of users find the text messaging function or website interface “difficult to use.”
For Staten Island, meanwhile, the project has been exceedingly simple to introduce. The authority awarded three contracts — one for on-bus hardware, one for back-office software and one for text message services — and installation began on the first of this month. Once the service is nearly ready, the MTA will begin a publicity blitz to prepare Staten Islanders for bus tracking.
Meanwhile, this project has an added benefit in that it will help drive forward the plan to replace MetroCards with a smart card tap-and-go payment system. The project was budgeted with $6.9 million from the New Fare Payment System initiative, and the $1.2 million in technology the MTA purchased for Staten Island’s bus tracking system will work with the new fare system as well. Furthermore, they’ve locked in software development through the city for $7.5 million, a total that includes development and six years of maintenance and hosting services. All in all, that’s not a bad deal.
As an information geek and transit advocate, I’m excited for the potential that BusTime should realize. If riders of any bus route can easily look up how far away the next bus is, they can better plan travel of all kinds. It should encourage people to use the buses as a way to supplement their subway rides, and it will take the sheer mystery out of riding the bus. Eliminating both the surprise of the schedule and the frustrating aspects of the wait should only increase customer satisfaction and use.
The buses have had a tough go of it lately, but things are starting to look up. Now if only we could bring a pre-boarding fare payment system to the entire bus network as well.